SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
November 03, 1969
The waters of the Hudson River are not as murky to Ace Lent as they are to most people. He can see a lot of caviar swimming around down there in the bellies of sturgeon
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November 03, 1969

Uncrowned King Of Caviar

The waters of the Hudson River are not as murky to Ace Lent as they are to most people. He can see a lot of caviar swimming around down there in the bellies of sturgeon

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In view of the lack of knowledge about sturgeon, fishery biologists are very much interested in getting freshly preserved specimens for taxonomic study. Several years ago while on a trip to Miami, I was asked for specimens by George Miller of the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries Tropical Atlantic Biological Laboratory. Miller said that Jim Atz at the American Museum of Natural History would arrange for shipment to Miami. After returning home I collected 15 small sea sturgeon and phoned Dr. Atz, whom I had yet to meet in person, and he said to come on down. I drove to the museum with the fish frozen in a large plastic bag. After wending my way through labyrinths of dinosaurs and Pleistocene elk, I found the Department of Ichthyology, where a secretary directed me to Atz's office. As I entered with the booty for Miller. Atz, garbed in a long white coat, was bent over a microscope examining some tiny cichlid from British Guiana. He waved me to a seat. Five minutes later he arose and wandered over. "What have you got here?" he asked.

"Sea sturgeon from the Hudson for George Miller in Miami." I said. "He said you would ship them to him."

Atz looked at the bag of fish on the counter. His eyes seemed to pop. "Oh, my God!" he exclaimed. Then he shouted. "Donn! Donn! Come here." Dr. Donn Rosen, the head of the department, hurried from his office across the hall. He and Atz stood in wonder at the fish in the bag. "Oh," said Atz, "they're beautiful. They're lovely." He sighed over them like a lifer let loose with Elizabeth Taylor. "They're just beautiful. Hmmm, look at those tails. How lovely!" Rosen sighed in agreement. After much oohing and aahing, Atz turned toward me. "You know our sturgeon collection here is very meager," he said. I nodded stupidly. "We'd love to have these for the museum," he continued. "Of course, I'll send George some. Would you mind?" I said I would not, that I could get plenty more for George. After this, we all had a very long and pleasant conversation, which ended with my agreement to collect sturgeon and other Hudson River fishes for the museum and its new hall of fishes.

Given the abundance of sturgeon in the Hudson, I began to wonder a few years ago if there might not be more of a commercial market for Ace. I began to formulate fantasies of a corporation to be known as the Greater Verplanck Caviar Company. Ace and his fishing partner, Charlie White, were to wax rich as joint managing directors and net haulers, while I would draw a modest fee as consultant. One day I told them about my idea.

First off, Ace and Charlie would have to capture the big sea sturgeon entering the river to spawn in the late spring and early summer. To do this they would need very strong netting. This would cost approximately $1,000, a figure that caused Ace and Charlie to look askance. At the time, they were running a leaky boat with an elderly 5-hp engine held together with string—ha, they still are! I suggested a new boat and engine would be in order. "Why not go first class?" I said. They looked askance again. "He's dreaming, Charlie," said Ace. But as I sketched out the possibilities, they hunched over the kitchen table in silence. There was no hard and fast figure on how many big fish they could harvest, I went on. More research was needed (and certainly the Greater Verplanck Caviar Company should back that research), but the chances were that maybe 5,000 big fish, weighing 100 pounds and upward, could be taken each year without harm to the stock. "He's still dreaming, Charlie," said Ace. If research disclosed that only 1,000 should be taken, then only 1,000 would be taken. If 7,500 could be taken, we could work toward that figure each year. Over all, 5,000 was a nice round figure. According to the law of averages, and from what is known about sturgeon populations, about half of these 5,000 fish would be females, and the typical female would contain, to set a low figure, about 50 pounds of eggs. Twenty-five hundred females, each with 50 pounds of eggs, added up to 125,000 pounds of caviar. At the very least that caviar would fetch a minimum wholesale price of $10 a pound. There was the chance that it would bring more, because the eggs of the sea sturgeon, unlike the eggs of the round-nosed, are not pearly black but golden-brown. To some European gourmets the golden-brown eggs are the cream of the caviar trade. Known as osietr, this golden-brown caviar fetches as high as $60 a pound retail.

"Now, boys," I said to Ace and Charlie, "I'm not saying our sea sturgeon will contain the osietr caviar. But I think they will, because European sea sturgeon, Acipenser sturio. is probably, possibly, the same fish as Acipenser oxyrhynchus, except that some taxonomists have noted slight differences. The eggs are quality stuff." For starters, we could still figure on the wholesale price of $10 a pound raw. But, I went on, even at the low price of $10 a pound, 125,000 pounds of eggs would be worth $1,250,000. There were great laughs from across the table, as though we had just robbed a British mail train. Moreover, I continued, the flesh of both the female and male fish would be worth a minimum of 50� a pound, possibly far more if the Greater Verplanck Caviar Company went into smoking sturgeon. Figuring the average fish had 100 pounds of meat, that meant the flesh would bring $250,000. In sum, the value of the total catch, eggs and meat, would amount to $1.5 million for three months of work. Silence. An exchange of glances around the table.

Financing was in order. A few persons with whom I discussed the prospects of the Greater Verplanck Caviar Company were immediately enthusiastic, but they had even less business judgment than I. By chance, I happened to run into a Time Inc. colleague, Seymour Freedgood of FORTUNE, who had, at least for a journalist, some business sense. With great fervor Sy at once began seeking to organize and finance the company. Ever the backer of improbable causes, he was so smitten with the prospects that he drove up to Verplanck with an immense seine that he had bought from a commercial fisherman on Long Island. The seine was worthless for what we had in mind, but Ace and Charlie expressed their thanks, while Sy went back to sounding out moguls on Wall Street. Sy and I had lunch with General Beyer, who was very interested in buying what the company caught. For one thing, the general liked the sturgeon I had brought him from Ace; as a matter of fact, he had even served some smoked to amazed friends at "21." Secondly, the general had liked the caviar from the round-nosed sturgeon, and although this fish was not present in enough numbers in the Hudson to support a sustained commercial yield, the possibilities of osietr caviar from the big sea sturgeon were most intriguing. Thirdly, the general had his difficulties in dealing with the Russians, and the Russians, moreover, were having difficulties of their own. The Caspian Sea, the major source of the Russian sturgeon fishery, is badly polluted, so badly polluted that in the 1930s Soviet biologists had to stock a marine worm, Nereis diversicolor, from the Sea of Azov in order to provide food for the sturgeon in the Caspian. Furthermore—and this will strike an ironic response in the Hudson Valley—the Volga spawning grounds are threatened by hydroelectric projects, and marshlands on the Caspian are being "reclaimed" for agriculture.

Unfortunately for the Greater Verplanck Caviar Company and for all those who knew him, Sy Freedgood died. Plans for the company have been put aside for the nonce. Nonetheless, General Beyer is still very much interested in the Hudson sturgeon and their eggs, and Ace and Charlie are talking about weaving a net to hold the big ones. In fact, not long ago they went for a walk along the beach at the Point looking for an old black tug hawser. Ace found one, and he is now taking the hawser apart strand by strand to weave into a gigantic net. "I could finish it in a month," Ace says. "This black stuff is as strong as hell."

Whatever happens. Ace will go on fishing the river. Recently he realized one of his dreams. He hunted up the owner of the old Excelsior Pool Room and bought it to use as a home. Now he is painting the place over and putting in new windowpanes. The old poolroom is right on the riverbank, and any debris that floats close to shore is swept into a little cove by the house where Ace keeps his boat. The pickings can be good, especially after abnormally high tides. Within the space of a week Ace picked up an old rowboat, a ladder, a chair and a 20-by-10-foot wooden pier that he plans to nail into place. In the years to come he doubtless will be able to furnish the old place from the flotsam that floats by. The Hudson seems to have a way of taking care of her own.

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Related Topics
Jim Atz 1 0 0
Hudson River 18 0 0
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Malcolm Beyer 1 0 0